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Crytek's Stan Huebler

Crytek's lead designer on the problems of PC hardware and making games for a wider audience

Far Cry and Crysis are two important entries in the first-person shooter genre in the past few years - but both titles restricted their audiences to some degree when they were first released because they aimed high.

Here, talking exclusively at GDC Paris to GamesIndustry.biz Crytek's lead designer Stan Huebler ponders the problem of high hardware demands, and the question of how to make games appeal to wider audiences.

GamesIndustry.biz Crytek's titles are consumed by traditional gamers for the most part - do you see a time in the future when games like Far Cry and Crysis are considered mainstream?
Stan Huebler

I guess from the finesse, the kind of games we make - the production values we put into it - are like big movies, with a big budget. But certain moves appeal to a mass market, or mainstream, audience and games - if they want to - should be able to do the same.

I think it's more about the kind of gameplay and the adjustments you make to catch those groups, and not so much about what kind of game you're making. I'm certain that we could make a Crysis game that, if we did the right things to it, would appeal to a wider audience. And in a certain way we actually try - but we really like the hardcore market and you actually have to care for both. So you don't really want to scare away that hardcore market. But I would say it's possible.

GamesIndustry.biz Ben Cousins talked at GDC Paris about the Battlefield franchise, and with Heroes it's interesting the direction EA Dice is taking - a traditionally hardcore game, but with a version that's targeting the more casual audience. Is it worth trying?
Stan Huebler

I guess it's worth trying, I mean the market is big. What you always want to do as a game studio is see where the trends are going, you don't want to be left behind when everybody else is already jumping on the new train.

I really like the way they've analysed it, how they think they have to change the game to appeal to a different audience. I think in general it wasn't specific just for their game, you could apply it to most games if you want to make them accessible, want to catch those audiences - to say we don't want them to have to have this big machine, they should be able to play on a smaller PC, and so on.

But the question I have is that are they still appealing to the hardcore market? I was actually a Battlefield player before, and I'm not yet sure - if I play it, am I going to be cool with it? Am I expecting to get this gameplay experience I had from previous games?

For example I was really addicted to the helicopter controls - it was really hard to get into it, but after a lot of practice you'd get it and be able to fly this helicopter. It was so rewarding, it was almost like you were flying it for real in a way.

GamesIndustry.biz But that sort of thing will never really translate onto a casual title, because of the barriers to entry.
Stan Huebler

Exactly, but the question is does my core audience appreciate this? Or am I just going to be cool with it, understand that it's a different experience? And that's what I think will happen - people will get that it's a different intention.

I see myself as one of the 'frustrated restricteds' that he talked about, because you're getting older, you have less time, and you'd love to play as much as you did before, but you just can't.

And also our audience is getting older - I think we have to understand that games have to grow with that audience, so in those terms what they're doing is right. In terms of what we're doing we have some thoughts of our own, but nothing defined that we'd put on the table. But it's something we'd have to look out for as well.

GamesIndustry.biz Crysis was one of the biggest jaw-droppers of last year when it comes to visuals - you mention blockbuster titles, and in the past few decades the special effects have been needed to drive the film industry forwards. The same is true of the games industry, with each new hardware generation - how important do you think big 'event' titles that set the new benchmarks are?
Stan Huebler

Well, I don't think there's just one game that you'd say is the benchmark for first-person shooters, for example. Because there's diversity among shooters, whether it's on console or PC, is it a tactical shooter or an all-out action - and there are always those games every few years that set a new standard.

Halo is one - that set a new standard in its realm. A polished experience, very approachable, the first time on consoles and that was a big step. I think we were a step on the visuals side, and the open world with a very real feel.

But the problem with the movie industry comparison is that when I go to the cinema, I don't need a really powerful PC, right? So the problem is that if you go so far to the edge of what computer graphics can deliver at the moment, you will become hardcore - because the casual audiences aren't going to have that powerful a machine.

Or if you go on consoles you're still within the limits of what the console can do, but there are surprises with every generation as it develops, with new titles for which you think "I never thought they could pull that off," and they're just understanding the hardware better. I guess with each new hardware generation there's a jump.

Then you have things like Mirror's Edge - that looks cool - so far I've only seen some trailers. I wonder how it really feels, I look forward to the first playable demo, to see if it's really working. It's hard for me to imagine, there must be a few things they'll struggle with because it's a hard thing to pull off - this kind of first-person game with agile movement across a city.

So I think there might be things that push a certain element in a first-person shooter, and what we do in Crytek is look at what others are doing and then make sure to at least catch up - even if we can't always be the best in every area, you don't want to be left behind. That's what drives new trends. We have to make easier interfaces, you have to care much more about story - that's what BioShock or Half-Life 2 told us - you have to make environments more attractive, not just run-and-gun and shoot the next guy. We have to care for the more intellectual people, who want the strategic approach, who analyse it a bit more. Those are all trends.

GamesIndustry.biz And you do that while everybody else is doing the same - it's a hugely competitive industry.
Stan Huebler

It is, the FPS market is really crowded, but then it gets a lot of attention. I'm happy that we got our foot really in the door there, and now our team is really experienced. But I would say a new IP in the FPS market is always difficult now if you don't find that spot which you want to hit.

There are a lot of products that are already there, with established universes, that people already play and they want to know how it's going to continue.

GamesIndustry.biz Another thing that cinema's never had to worry about is the interactivity, but videogames have always had this graphics-gameplay dichotomy. Those are the two most important elements, aren't they?
Stan Huebler

Yes, and gameplay is always the first thing you have to take care of. What I understood is that for a first-person shooter it's really about the whole package, and it's important to understand what you have to do to deliver all those elements.

If you look at what first-person shooters do now, it's not reinventing the wheel - it's a few new things, a bit more polish, maybe inventing this kind of new weapon, but it's not like every year companies are coming out with a whole new game. It's just elements, that people are saying are good.

But you can't always plan that, it's hard to just hunt for that new type of gameplay. We try to do it, we prototype a lot of things, try crazy ideas, but it's hard to get those magic things - like Portal for example. It's amazing, but it's not something we could make work for Crysis.

GamesIndustry.biz Do you think Crysis will have a broader appeal over the next 12-18 months as more people upgrade their PCs? Will people want to go back and check it out as a benchmark?
Stan Huebler

I hope so, I hope the same thing happens as with Far Cry. I remember I was on a plane flying somewhere, and this business guy next to me boots up his laptop and starts playing Far Cry. I couldn't believe it - he was running it on his laptop, although when it came out people had a hard time because of the hardware requirements.

I hope that for Crysis it's the same - that the hardware catches up with it - so a casual gamer with a PC off the shelf can run it.

GamesIndustry.biz In a way it's almost like being a launch title for a new console - at the beginning it's hard, because not many people have the console, but over time they catch up.
Stan Huebler

Exactly, and they look at what they can play. At the moment the trend is to be multiplatform, and we're not. That might even be a bonus for people on the PC platform, to have a 'true' PC game that really gets the best out of that platform.

Stan Huebler is lead designer at Crytek. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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